A broken leg is a break or crack in one of the bones in your leg. It’s also referred to as a leg fracture.
A fracture may occur in the:
- Femur. The femur is the bone above your knee. It’s also called the thigh bone.
- Tibia. Also called the shin bone, the tibia is the larger of the two bones below your knee.
- Fibula. The fibula is the smaller of the two bones below your knee. It’s also called the calf bone.
Your three leg bones are the longest bones in your body. The femur is the longest and strongest.
Because it takes so much force to break it, a femur fracture is usually obvious. Fractures to the other two bones in your leg can be less obvious. Symptoms of breaks in all three might include:
The three most common causes of a broken leg are:
- Trauma. A leg break could be the result of a fall, a vehicle accident, or an impact while playing sports.
- Overuse. Repetitive force or overuse can result in stress fractures.
- Osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition in which the body is losing too much bone or making too little bone. This results in weak bones that are more likely to break.
The type and severity of a bone fracture depends on the amount of force that caused the damage.
A lesser force that just exceeds the bone’s breaking point may just crack the bone. An extreme force may shatter the bone.
Common types of broken bones include:
- Transverse fracture. The bone breaks in a straight horizontal line.
- Oblique fracture. The bone breaks in an angled line.
- Spiral fracture. The bone breaks a line encircling the bone, like the stripes on a barber pole. It’s usually caused by a twisting force.
- Comminuted fracture. The bone is broken into three or more pieces.
- Stable fracture. The damaged ends of the bone line up close to the position before the break. The ends don’t move with gentle movement.
- Open (compound) fracture. Fragments of bone stick out through the skin, or bone emerges through a wound.
How your doctor treats your broken leg depends on the location and type of fracture. Part of your doctor’s diagnosis is determining which classification the fracture falls into. These include:
- Open (compound) fracture. The skin is pierced by the broken bone, or bone emerges through a wound.
- Closed fracture. The surrounding skin isn’t broken.
- Incomplete fracture. The bone is cracked, but not separated into two parts.
- Complete fracture. The bone is broken into two or more parts.
- Displaced fracture. The bone fragments on each side of the break aren’t aligned.
- Greenstick fracture. The bone is cracked, but not all the way through. The bone is “bent.” This type typically occurs in children.
The primary treatment for a broken bone is to make sure the ends of the bone are properly aligned and then to immobilize the bone so it can properly heal. This starts with setting the leg.
If it’s a displaced fracture, your doctor may need to maneuver the pieces of bone into the correct position. This positioning process is called reduction. Once the bones are properly positioned, the leg is typically immobilized with a splint or cast made of plaster or fiberglass.
In some cases, internal fixation devices, such as rods, plates, or screws, need to be surgically implanted. This is often necessary with injuries such as:
- multiple fractures
- displaced fracture
- fracture that damaged surrounding ligaments
- fracture that extends into a joint
- fracture caused by a crushing accident
- fracture in certain areas, such as your femur
In some cases, your doctor may recommend an external fixation device. This is a frame that’s outside your leg and attached through the tissue of your leg into the bone.
Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) to help reduce pain and inflammation.
In there’s severe pain, your doctor might prescribe a stronger pain-relieving medication.
Once your leg is out of its splint, cast, or external fixation device, you doctor may recommend physical therapy to lessen stiffness and bring back movement and strength to your healing leg.
There are complications that may arise during and after the healing process for your broken leg. These may include:
- osteomyelitis (bone infection)
- nerve damage from the bone breaking and injuring nearby nerves
- muscle damage from the bone breaking near adjacent muscles
- joint pain
- development of osteoarthritis years later from poor bone alignment during the healing process
It could take several weeks to several months for your broken leg to heal. Your recovery time will depend on the severity of the injury and how you follow your doctor’s directions.
If you have a splint or cast, your doctor might recommend you use crutches or a cane to keep weight off the affected leg for six to eight weeks or longer.
If you have an external fixation device, your doctor will most likely remove it after about six to eight weeks.
During this recovery period, the chances are good that your pain will stop well before the fracture is solid enough to handle normal activity.
After your cast, brace, or other immobilization device is removed, your doctor may suggest you continue to limit movement until the bone is solid enough for you to return to your typical activity level.
If your doctor recommends physical therapy and exercise, it may take several months or even longer to complete the healing of a severe leg break.
Your recovery time can also be affected by:
- your age
- any other injuries that occurred when you broke your leg
- underlying conditions or health concerns not directly associated with your broken leg, such as obesity, heavy alcohol use, diabetes, smoking, malnutrition, etc.
If you think or know you’ve broken your leg, seek immediate medical attention.
Breaking a leg and your recovery time will have a major impact on your mobility and lifestyle. When treated promptly and properly, however, it’s common to regain normal function.